The election of Donald J. Trump on Nov. 8 was the start of many things, and while we only have a handful of executive orders to judge at this point—in addition to hateful campaign rhetoric, outrageous policy proposals, insane Twitter rants and press statements, a huckster persona, a cadre of extremist and/or unqualified Cabinet nominees, closeness to Vladimir Putin, and the decision not to release his tax returns—those things do not seem good.
But it also marks the constitutionally mandated end of something, too: the presidency of Barack Obama, the country’s first African-American commander in chief.
Following his meteoric rise from the Illinois Senate to the White House in a swift four-year span, Obama promised to bridge the partisan gap with, as he put it, hope and change, while also ushering in a new age of progressivism.
Eight years later, his record is not without its spots.
Obama guided the country through the recession he inherited, “the worst since the Great Depression,” as he often said. He signed into law the Affordable Care Act, giving health insurance to 20 million Americans who didn’t previously have it. He repealed Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, paving the way for LGBTQ people to serve in the military. He drew down troop numbers in Iraq and Afghanistan. He expanded hate crime protections by signing the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act. He nominated the first Hispanic Supreme Court justice, Sonia Sotomayor. He vetoed the Keystone XL pipeline, a symbol of America’s move away from oil dependency. He killed Sept. 11 mastermind Osama bin Laden. He reopened relations with Cuba.
There were the profoundly humanizing moments, too, such as when he stood in the Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston and sang ’Amazing Grace’ at a service for the nine people who had been killed there by a white supremacist, or when he openly shed tears discussing the schoolchildren killed in Newtown, or when he bent over so a little black boy could touch his hair, or when he walked hand-in-hand with civil rights legend Rep. John Lewis across the Edmund Pettus Bridge on the 50th anniversary of “Bloody Sunday” in Selma, Alabama, or even when he made some meme for BuzzFeed to encourage people to register for healthcare.
But he also failed to close the Guantanamo Bay detention camp. He greatly expanded the use of drone strikes to take out America’s enemies, including Anwar al-Awlaki, a U.S. citizen and terrorist suspect who was not given the due process granted to him under the law. Hundreds of innocent civilians (independent investigations offer varying numbers) have been killed as a result of these strikes. He failed to step up as the Syrian Civil War raged on—peace talks have only just begun—resulting in the deaths of 400,000 and many more human rights violations. He has attacked press freedoms and been overly harsh on whistleblowers. The rollout for the Affordable Care Act was a disaster. During this period of economic recovery, the American middle class has dwindled, with the gap between the rich and the poor only widening. And Obama has greatly expanded the power of the executive branch, teeing it up so the Trump administration can run wild with executive orders.
Of course, there was always more to the Obama presidency than politics. As the first family of color to reside in the White House, the executive home built with the help of slavery, the great moral stain on the “land of the free and the home of the brave” that still has impacts on American life today, the Obamas carried on their shoulders the unbelievable weight that came with history and intense expectations and scrutiny. Through it all, Barack, Michelle, Malia, and Sasha filled their respective roles with dignity and eloquence, a First Family that was warm and engaging, in spite of these burdens and the undue, coded criticism from some on the right—including Trump himself.
Not long after the election, when it was clear what was being lost and what was at stake, I set out to cover some of the Obama family’s final days in the White House. As an alt-weekly that has rarely, if ever, covered Washington beyond commenting on it, City Paper were a bit late in the game to try and receive everyday press passes. But we were able to attend many of the open press events available to media organizations outside the regular White House pool.
Here is what I saw.
Tater and Tot get pardoned and a cavalcade of dad jokes
Nov. 23, 2016, The Rose Garden
As television crews set up their cameras, the two turkeys shuffled around the empty White House lawn, enclosed by a semicircle of a small metal grate fence and the steps that lead to the West Wing and Oval Office. They were both great, big white birds with light blue caruncles and a light red slab of skin—known as the snood—draping from the middle of their faces and covering their beaks. These 40-pound turkeys, Tater and its alternate, Tot, came from Iowa to be spared from their spots on the Thanksgiving table by President Barack Obama, the 69th such time the President of the United States has used his executive privilege to save a fowl (or two) ahead of the holiday.
In these brief moments before the pardoning ceremony, Tater and Tot were met with the long lenses and smartphone cameras of a few snooping journalists, and when this gets a little too close for comfort, they alternately let out a gobble-gobble-gobble-gobble. These occasional outbursts overshadowed the smooth jazz being played by one of the military bands near the South Portico of the White House, where guests enjoyed food and beverages beforehand.
Once the cameras are configured, members of the media were shuttled back through the Palm Room, which connects the West Wing to the primary mansion, to a small court just outside the Press Kitchen and offices, where we waited for the 200 or so guests to take their seats in front of President Obama’s podium.
It was a bit of a surreal experience for a first-timer: feeling in awe of this place of immense history and your luck at getting through the gates and the inescapable sense of intimate familiarity with everything about this space thanks to years of exposure to news, pop culture, and history books. The reporters and photographers who, presumably, come here with some regularity seemed to see the experience as old hat. While the press group continued to wait, they gathered in small circles to talk about story pitches or who’s working where or something as banal as how going across the Key Bridge, from Virginia into Washington, D.C., sucks because people don’t know how to drive it.
About 2:22 p.m., White House aides guided the media back through the Palm Room and into the Rose Garden, a stretch of green space wedged between the residence and the offices of the president. Guests had taken their seats, some ushered there by members of the military in dress uniform. The journalists scrambled to secure a good spot in front of the ropes that surrounded the occupied wooden chairs placed in the grass.
Then more waiting. Kids dressed in their Sunday best fidgeted about on their parents’ laps or chattered. The titular roses were gone now, and the leaves of the crab apple trees placed in those same gardens had either fallen or turned to a reddish green. They bore small fruit, the size of a cherry and the color of a peach.
In the West Wing, a young boy in an argyle sweater peered out the curtains of a door to survey the scene. Not much later, the boy was again opening the curtains to take a peek, this time with a woman leaning over him to explain what’s happening outside.
Minutes later, President Obama, dressed in a dark blue suit and plum-colored tie, emerged from the Oval Office and walked the pathway to where the podium had been placed, flanked in the background by an American flag and the Flag of the President of the United States. He brought with him the boy in the argyle sweater and an older boy in a striped knit pullover—they are, it turns out, two of his nephews, Austin and Aaron Robinson.
“Ladies and gentlemen, the President of the United States,” a booming voice announced as the trio approached, and the crowd cheered.
The president thanked the crowd and began his remarks in a very plainspoken way, as if the act of pardoning turkeys was part of the day-to-day routine for a statesman.
“For generations, presidents have faithfully executed two great American traditions: issuing a proclamation that sets aside a Thursday in November for us to express gratitude, and granting pardons that reflect our beliefs in second chances,” he said. “And this week, we do both.”
Even in a purely ceremonial event such as this, Obama still has all the hallmarks and mannerisms of a tried-and-true public speaker. He makes sure to swivel his head to both sides, acknowledging the whole crowd. He points and gestures for emphasis. His voice projects and his delivery is smooth.
And then, silliness.
“Of course, Thanksgiving is a family holiday as much as a national one,” he said. “So for the past seven years, I’ve established another tradition: embarrassing my daughters with a ‘corny-copia’ of dad jokes about turkeys.”
And what a cavalcade of dad jokes it was.
His daughters, Sasha and Malia, couldn’t be here because of scheduling conflicts, he said. But really, it was because they didn’t want to be embarrassed anymore. “They were fed up,” he explained, drawing a couple of groans and a few shouts of “Heyyyy!” from a group of White House staffers assembled off to the side, along a wall of the West Wing.
Aaron and Austin were here, he continued, because they “have not yet been turned cynical by Washington. They still believe in bad puns. They still appreciate the grandeur of this occasion. They still have hope.”
The joke was on Malia and Sasha, though, because the stand-up routine would continue year after year without the cameras.
“No way I’m cutting this habit cold turkey,” the president deadpanned to a mix of sympathy laughs, sighs, and applause. He grinned and looked to the his left, toward his staff, in the classic “What? What?” pose of a comic, and then leaned over to Austin and
Aaron to confirm: “Good one. That was pretty funny.”
Obama continued on about how Thanksgiving was a time to gather loved ones, but he couldn’t get through the line without chucking over the ridiculousness that unfolded moments prior.
He then introduced Tater and Tot, explaining that the former was something of a “Vice Turkey” to the latter just in case the duties of being the pardoned turkey couldn’t be fulfilled.
“We’re working on getting him a pair of aviator glasses,” Obama joked in a nod to the meme version of his own vice president, Joe Biden.
But before granting clemency to Tater and Tot, he wanted to acknowledge “the brave turkeys who weren’t so lucky, who didn’t get to ride the gravy train to freedom—who met their fate with courage and sacrifice, and proved that they weren’t chicken.”
Almost everyone in the crowd laughed politely, but one baby in the back let out a loud, pained squeal.
“Oh, it’s not that bad now,” Obama quipped. “Come one.”
The president shifted gears and, like going through a stump speech, ticked off some of his administration’s achievements that everyone could be thankful for: job creation, rising wages, a return to normalcy with housing, a booming stock market, 20 million Americans with health insurance who didn’t have it before.
“That’s worth gobbling about,” he cracked, going on to praise marriage equality and thanking veterans and their families.
Without saying it outright, Obama acknowledged the pending Donald Trump presidency and all the hatred and division swirling around the nation as a result of Trump’s election when he invoked the highest ideal of the meaning of this holiday: “Thanksgiving is also a reminder of the source of our national strength—that out of many, we are one; that we’re bound not by any one race or religion, but rather by an adherence to a common creed, that all of us are created equal. And while accepting our differences and building a diverse society has never been easy, it has never been more important. We are a people that look out for one another and get each other’s backs. We keep moving forward, defined by values and ideals that have been a light to all humanity.”
He offered a plea to help those in need, including “the immigrant, the refugee, everybody who’s trying to get a second chance.”
In the face of everything, even the still-recent election, the president kept his faith in the goodness of the people, even when there were newfound reasons for him not to do so.
Getting back to schtick, he offered a plea to feed the hungry and twisted it into a barb about how the turkeys were good “because they’re already stuffed.” A lackluster response followed, to which Obama cocked his head slightly and smirked, as if to say,
“Yeah, I said it.”
Next came the biggest knee-slapper of them all.
“And when somebody at your table tells you that you’ve been hogging all the side dishes and you can’t have any more, I hope you respond with a creed that sums up the spirit of a hungry people: Yes, We Cran.”
“That was good,” Obama insisted as the crowd laughed. “You don’t think that’s funny?” he asked his staffers.
Obama then brought his nephews over to a table covered with a brown cloth and decorative gourds, where Tot was resting.
“Tot,” he said with his left hand raised above the bird, “I hereby pardon you from the Thanksgiving table, and we hope that you have a wonderful time at Gobblers Rest.”
“And I give a little special dispensation,” he said, moving his hand over the bird in a motion that resembled the Sign of the Cross.
After inviting the crowd to applaud his nephews, Obama shook hands with people in the front row. At almost 3 p.m., he and his nephews returned inside the White House.
Decorated for the holidays
Nov. 29, 2016, The East Room
The White House is decked out for the holidays. Here, in one of the largest rooms in the executive mansion, there are four tall, fully decorated Christmas trees, a column of jumbo-sized replica Christmas ball ornaments, garland surrounding the frames of the long, tall mirrors above the room’s four fireplaces, a massive nativity scene in a small cut-out, and a nutcracker statue that towers over the official portrait of Teddy Roosevelt.
To give an idea of the full scope, there are more than 65,000 ornaments, 109 wreaths, 63 Christmas trees, and 8,000 bows, as well as two large replicas of the Obama family dogs, Bo and Sunny, in the entire house.
Military families are gathered in the East Room for an exclusive tour of the lights and a reception hosted by First Lady Michelle Obama as part of the Joining Forces initiative.
Volunteers from 33 states, Washington D.C., and Puerto Rico were enlisted to help decorate the White House, including Hazel Bethel, an immigrant from Trinidad and Tobago who enlisted in the Army in 1975. Wearing a navy blue dress, she stood before a podium with the White House seal to tell her story and introduce the First Lady.
“I served this country with all my heart,” she said. “I love this country.”
She told her two children “any child can become a president in the United States, if no other country.”
“And I was so overwhelmed,” she continued with pride in her voice, “when Mr. Barack Obama became the first African-American president. It proved me right.”
After talking about her wonderful volunteering experience, she extended her hand to the left and said, “It’s an honor for me to introduce the First Lady of the United States, Mrs. Michelle Obama.”
Obama, wearing a beautiful metallic blue dress with a flowing skirt and prints of silver and gold floral branches that intersected to form red and green pedals, walked on stage, hugged Bethel, and addressed the crowd.
“Hi, everybody! Look how good you guys look. You ready for some action?”
The sizable number of children in the front rows gave a pretty lukewarm affirmation. The First Lady’s eyes grew big.
“Are you sure? I don’t know, you sound like you don’t want cookies or anything like that.”
“I like cookies!” one of the kids blurted out.
She pointed toward the young voice in the crowd.
“You think you want some cookies? You think so? Okay, well, we’re going to get to it, but first I want to welcome everyone to the White House.”
Obama thanked Bethel for the introduction and discussed how, eight years ago, when her family first arrived, they wanted to make this the “People’s House.” A half million guests have been through for the holidays since then, she said, and 200,000 holiday cookies have been prepared in that time.
“So, looking back,” she said, “I am proud to say that we did our very best during the holidays to make Americans of all backgrounds and walks of life feel comfortable and welcome here in our nation’s house.”
She then thanked the members of her staff, giving shout-outs by name, and the volunteers who put all the decorations up.
“This is all possible because of all of these people. And on behalf of the entire Obama family—me, Barack, Malia, Sasha, Grandma, Bo and Sunny,” she said to laughs, “we are so proud of this team here, so proud of the time that we spent with you.”
Her voice started to tremble.
“We’re grateful for everything you’ve done for us over the years.”
She regained composure.
“So let’s give them a round of applause,” she said with a big smile.
“So before I get choked up,” she continued, “let me officially kick off our final White House holiday season.”
The First Lady thanked the military families, who for the last eight years have been the first groups to see the White House decorations. She included everyone from the service members to the veterans to the spouses to the “outstanding, handsome, beautiful, smart, talented, engaging military kids.”
The year’s decoration theme is “The Gift of the Holidays,” and among the many trees in the White House is one that has pictures of military families the First Family has met as well as gold ornaments for the men and women who have died in duty. A nearby iPad station allows visitors to send a holiday message to soldiers stationed abroad.
There’s also a tree dedicated to the Gift of Education, decorated with pencils and crayons, and two trees to raise awareness about the millions of young girls across the world who can’t go to school, each decorated with ornaments that say “girl” in various languages. There’s a tree decorated with ornaments shaped like bees and fruit to represent the gifts from the White House Garden.
Once she finished, Obama looked down at the children in the front rows and told them, “And with that, we get to have some fun, okay?”
The kids were taken to the State Dining Room, on the west end of the executive mansion, where there were two stations manned by White House staffers, one for making felt stockings and another for salt dough ornaments.
Above the mantel hangs a portrait of Abraham Lincoln, seated and leaning forward. It was flanked by gingerbread men holding red, white, and green lollipops. There were also two tall trees, each with snowy platforms that held gingerbread houses. A giant gingerbread replica of the White House sat on a grand table with bald eagles made out of carved wood for legs.
The First Lady walked from station to station, talking with the kids—all of them dressed in their Sunday best—and helping them make their crafts as camera shutters clicked away. First Dogs Bo and Sunny were brought out. Obama led them by their leash and sat down in the middle of the floor so she could talk with the kids as they pet the dogs’ big, curly black coats; they clearly enjoyed the attention. For the most part, the First Lady’s back was to the media, all her attention focused on the kids. She felt comfortable enough to kick off her shoes.
Christmas in America and a presidential rendition of ‘Jingle Bells’
Dec. 1, 2016, The Ellipse
A picture-perfect early winter sunset gave way to a cold, breezy night, as thousands gathered in this park, between the White House and Washington Monument, for the lighting of the National Tree. There was a full concert planned, hosted by actress Eva Longoria, and the whole thing would be broadcast on the Hallmark Channel.
About 6:20 p.m., following a performance by singer Kelly Clarkson, Longoria introduced President Barack Obama, First Lady Michelle Obama, and daughter Sasha Obama (elder daughter Malia was absent) as the Air Force jazz band Airmen of Note played.
The Obamas all hugged Longoria before the president, dressed in a long, dark overcoat with an oxblood scarf tucked in where the lapels intersect, grabbed a microphone and shouted, “Hello, everybody!”
In a cool-dad master of ceremonies kind of way, he said “Happy holidays to all of you!”
He raised his left hand up to the level of his head and waved it down toward his hip. “To everybody who is here tonight and everybody watching at home, it is now officially the time to—” he paused “—to light. This tree.”
Michelle mouthed an excited shriek and started clapping. Obama raised his hand again and pointed toward the crowd.
“Are you guys ready to count down?!”
They cheered. Michelle placed her right hand on the button.
Obama’s fingers unfurled to form a five. “We’re gonna start from five.”
There was a brief pause, and the president playfully questioned the attentiveness of his audience by snapping his chin down and asking, “You ready?”
A lukewarm “Yes!”
“You sure?” he deadpanned.
“OK, let’s go! Five!”
Snowflakes on the tree netting started flashing white.
He put his hand on the button with his wife’s.
They pushed the button and the tree lights burst into a patriotic blanket of red, white, and blue.
“Hey!” the president shouted in excitement. The Airmen of Note started playing again.
“Merry Christmas, everybody!” the president yelled.
They walked off stage. But after performances by Marc Anthony, Garth Brooks and Trisha Yearwood, Yolanda Adams, Chance The Rapper, and James Taylor, the president returned to deliver a speech about the meaning of the holiday.
Drawing from the messages in the story of Christ’s birth, Obama asked Americans to care for the sick and look out for their neighbors, to treat each other with respect.
“Those are our values. That is who we are. That’s who we will always be,” he said almost matter-of-factly. There’s so much in the world to question these notions, but Obama spoke of them still as if they were certain, ironclad.
The president noted this was the 94th time the national tree had been lit, and it was, of course, his eighth and final time to do it. But before he was done, the First Family, all of the musical guests, and St. Nick himself came out to sing ‘Jingle Bells’ together. As the band reached the final bars, the president snapped his fingers back and forth like the leader of a big band bringing the song to a halt.
He waved to the crowd during the final notes and said, “Thank you, everybody! Merry Christmas! God bless you all. God bless America.”
Sorting toys for tots
Dec. 7, 2016, Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling, Washington, D.C.
The camouflaged Marine Corps truck and Humvee had toys stacked on the hood and roof. Dozens of tall cardboard boxes the size of waste bins held even more, and there’s a row of bicycles along one of the walls. All these toys have to be sorted before they’re distributed to needy kids as part of the Toys for Tots program, which has been run by the Marines since the ‘40s. First Lady Michelle Obama, joined by families from all of the branches in the military, as well as groups from local schools, are here to do the sorting.
Dressed in a gray sweater and black pants, Obama walked out from behind one of the trucks carrying a sack full of toys, followed by Lt. Gen. Pete Osman, president and CEO of Toys for Tots, and a Marine in full dress uniform hauling similar bags of goodies.
Osman stood at a podium with poinsettias and Disney plush dolls at its base and told a story about getting a phone call in 2009 from the White House saying the First Lady wanted to get involved.
“Welp, we had a great first Christmas and I was thankful for that,” he recalled. “And she said, ‘I’ll be back.’ Well, she has been back.”
Osman insisted that all of Obama’s work makes her “America’s number one advocate for our children, whether it be healthcare, whether it be fitness, whether it be education.”
He thanked her on behalf of the commandant of the Corps and everyone involved with the program, but also the 60 million kids who’ve received toys over the past eight years.
“Ladies and gentlemen, our First Lady,” Osman said. The crowd cheered as Osman and Obama hugged.
“Oh, my goodness!” Obama exclaimed. “How is everybody doing?”
Calling attention to the work of Toys for Tots, Obama told the kids the importance of the program, and how it has delivered 512 million toys to more than 237 million children in all 50 states, D.C., Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Virgin Islands.
It’s hard work, too.
“They work for hours, sometimes in the cold and the wind and the snow and the rain, collecting these toys,” she said. “And they spend weekends sorting the toys, shipping them to kids all over the country—kids just like you all.” She pointed at the children during that last phrase, trying to make the connection resonate just a little bit more.
She made a point to talk about “what the holidays are all about,” explaining the importance of service and “the belief that in this country, we should look out for each other.”
“And if someone, anyone in this country—our neighbor, our classmates, our friends, people we don’t even know—if they hit on hard times, kids, it’s up to us to be there for them, right?” she said. “To help them, to reach out.”
Without doing so expressly, she took on the hatred and bile brought forth by Donald Trump, talking in a tone that was determined but warm and welcoming for the ears of children.
“Because the truth is, is that no matter what anybody says, we are all in this country together,” she said, pointing with each word of the phrase “we are all in this country together” for emphasis. “And I don’t want you to let anybody else make you think anything different. You all, all belong here.”
The crowd applauded.
Military families are a great example of this, with so many service members coming from all over the world. Spouses work to keep their families together while their loved ones are off serving, and the kids step up to help out and go through various school changes, during which they make friends “from every possible background.”
“That’s what our military represents,” she went on to say. “It represents the true spirit of diversity in this country.
Obama continued to assiduously praise America’s “beautifully diverse” population, but noted that “we have so much in common—our love for our families, our pride in our country, our commitment to helping each other in times of need—particularly in times of need.”
After thanking the people “for the privilege to serve” for eight years, she wished everyone a happy holidays, Merry Christmas, and happy new year.
“All right, let’s get to work, you guys,” she said to the kids. “Let’s sort some toys, okay?”
The First Lady and dozens of kid started grabbing toys from unsorted boxes and putting them into boxes arranged by gender and age range. As the boxes filled up, Marine officers would haul them away and place new ones to be filled.
It must be said that the First Lady has the patience and kindness of the most seasoned of pre-school teachers. She stopped to talk with kids or take pictures. Children would bring gifts to her, and she would converse with them about what it was and where it should go.
One girl, dressed in a pink shirt, white tutu, and gray pants, was basically glued to the First Lady. She greeted Obama with a big hug. Anytime she deposited a toy, she’d skip back to Obama with her next find. Obama always seemed excited to see her, bending down to discuss what the girl had brought over.
All the boxes filled, she hugged the girl a final time before going over to the rows of chairs with parents, many of them in dress uniform, to shake hands and take more selfies.
An American idol
Dec. 12, 2016, Children’s National Health System, Washington, D.C.
The atrium in the children’s hospital is several stories tall, with the railings and hallways overlooking the space separated by glass. Models of hot air balloons hang from the glass ceiling.
On the floor, there’s a big Christmas tree for the holidays, as well as three chairs and a two-seater office chair facing rows of chairs filled with patients here and their families. Blue curtains have been erected as a partition around the outside, and there are still kids, some still relying on the medical devices hooked to their arms, being escorted in by volunteers. They’re all here for an event with the First Lady.
As they waited, entertained by a live band, two singing sisters, two doctors dressed as clowns, and a magician who also performed comedy, Michelle Obama toured the hospital’s new Heart and Kidney Unit, visiting with patients and families there.
Just after 12:15 p.m., Obama, wearing a red, pink, and black jacket-and-shirt ensemble and black pants, walked out carrying family dog Bo on a leash behind her. A young girl holding Sunny by the leash soon followed, and just behind her were Santa Claus, holding the hand of a toddler, and TV personality Ryan Seacrest.
“I brought props,” Seacrest informed Obama.
“You have some props,” she responded. “You didn’t tell me about your props.”
“I watched you on YouTube do this last year,” he said.
“Ryan brought props,” the First Lady told the crowd of kids, leaning in.
“How are you guys doing?” she beamed.
“Good,” the kids said in unison.
“What’s new?” she asked as Seacrest waved to the crowd. Then she excitedly flailed her hands and said: “Well, it’s Christmas time again. Are we excited about Christmas time?”
“Have you all been very, very good this year?” Seacrest asked, and many of the children said yes.
“Well, we have a story to tell you,” said Obama, “a story about Christmas night and this guy named, um—” Here, she wiggled the fingers of her left hand, pretending to be confused.
“Old St. Nick,” Seacrest said, filling in the blank.
“Oh,” Obama enthused, looking down toward Santa and pointing, “it’s about you!”
“Santa. About that man right there,” Seacrest said, as Santa patted his belly with both hands.
“So Ryan and I are going to read together,” said Obama. “You guys ready?”
The First Lady began a dramatic reading of “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas.”
Around the time St. Nick was to call out his reindeer by name, Seacrest remembered the objects he brought with him.
“Oh, this is where the props come in,” Obama told the crowd while the former “American Idol” host grabbed a cut-out Santa beard to hold in front of his mouth.
“Now, Dasher! Now, Dancer! Now, Prancer and Vixen!” he bellowed. The First Lady had to help holding his copy of the book.
“On Comet! On Cupid—”
Seacrest pointed the beard at Santa, who hit his mark: “On Donner and Blitzen.”
“There you go,” Seacrest joked.
“Well done,” said Obama. “I’m so glad you brought that.” She said it without even a sense that she didn’t mean it. The crowd laughed.
The story continued. When reference to Claus’ pipe appeared, Obama offered the requisite anti-smoking message: “I think St. Nick gave up smoking. This was a long time back.”
“This was written way back in the day,” offered Seacrest.
And the mention of Santa’s belly and its resemblance to a bowl full of jelly during laughter drew a hearty “Ho, ho, ho, ho” from the man himself.
“Oh, that’s—I love that laugh,” said Obama.
Once they read, in unison, Santa’s wish for a “Merry Christmas to all, and to all a goodnight,” it was time for an interview with the children. She told the kids about what she had gotten the president for Christmas (hinting something related to music and something related to sports), what First Dogs Bo and Sunny do at the White House, and her favorite dish to cook (shrimp and garlic linguine with sundried tomatoes).
The event wrapped up, and Obama walked the dogs along the front rows of the crowd so sick kids could pet them and take pictures. She and Seacrest then walked into an adjacent TV studio, funded by Seacrest, for an interview with patients at the Youth Pride Clinic, a specialized department for young LGBTQ patients. The interview would be broadcast to Children’s National Health Systems around the country, and to those in this very hospital who were not well enough to see Obama and Seacrest in person.
All the questions were good, but there was one obvious standout:
Q: Were Sunny and Bo naughty or nice this year?
A: They were very nice. You see how patient they are. And I told you, they are excellent ambassadors. They are very good. And Sunny has stopped running to the end of the hall and pooping. She hasn’t done that all year.
That was a naughty thing she was doing for a couple of years, because the White House, where we live, it’s very long, right? So they usually spend time on what’s the west end of the residence, right? The east end is like way down there, so I think she thinks that’s, like, outside. So if she would get out of her area, she’d run and she’d sneak and go down there and poop. And she knew she shouldn’t do it because she’d have to go by the president’s office, and if he saw her he’d be like, “Hey, Sunny!” And she’d try to ignore him and look—her head down.
She hasn’t done that for a good year, so we’re hoping that she’s done with that.
How the 21st Century Cures Act became a law
Dec. 13, 2016, South Court Auditorium, Eisenhower Executive Office Building
This was to be a momentous day, the last time President Barack Obama would hold a signing ceremony for a major piece of legislation, the 21st Century Cures Act. The bill allocates $6.3 billion in medical spending, money targeted toward fast-tracking drugs and medical devices through the FDA, conducting mental health and cancer research, and combating the nation’s ongoing opioid addiction problem.
After cruising through the House of Representatives by a vote of 392-26, the Senate passed the bill on Dec. 7, 94 to 5. Though the bill wasn’t without its critics, who said it basically amounted to a handout to the pharmaceutical industry.
To be sure, there was a bit of a celebratory mood here: Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz and his famous locks were there, as were Sens. Amy Klobuchar, Joe Manchin, Orrin Hatch, Al Franken, and Ed Markey and Reps. Ann McLane Kuster, Nancy Pelosi, Steny Hoyer, Tim Murphy, and Charles Boustany.
But there was also David Grubb, a former state senator from West Virginia, and his wife, Kate. David was here to talk about his daughter, Jessie. As a freshman at the University of North Carolina, Jessie was sexually assaulted, her father told the room, and she tried to dull her pain with heroin. Jessie nearly died from an overdose, but was saved when paramedics administered Naloxone. The experience scared her into choosing sobriety.
But the closest place for her to get treatment was in Ann Arbor, Michigan, six hours away. During a forum at the time Grubb asked the president when there would be more resources and funding to address this epidemic. Obama told him he was working on it.
“And here we are,” Grubb said. “A little over a year later, and we are seeing money dedicated to this problem that will make it possible for people… to have the resources to build the facilities, to do the kind of education that’s absolutely needed so we can address this problem.”
It didn’t come in time for Jessie, however. Seventh months sober, Jessie, an avid runner, suffered an injury that led to an infection, requiring surgery. Medical professionals were told about Jessie’s history with addiction, and it was in her medical records eight times, he said. Despite this, she was given 50 oxycodone pills when she was discharged.
The audience muttered in shock. She died that night. Among the letter and notes of condolence the Grubbs received was a handwritten one from the president. The Grubbs are now working on a bill with Sen. Manchin, called Jessie’s Law, to add voluntarily disclosed addiction history to electronic health records.
“I know that Vice President Biden understands the pain that we have been going through this last year,” Grubb said, a reference Biden’s son, Beau, who died from brain cancer in 2015. “The loss of a child, no matter what the cause, changes a parent forever, and it has changed us. And this is a bond we share with Vice President Biden and with too many families throughout this country.”
Then, Obama came out, dressed in a black suit, white shirt, and periwinkle tie, followed by Biden in a navy blue pinstripe suit and white shirt with a tie a few shades closer to blue. Both took turns hugging the Grubbs as the room gave them a standing ovation.
The vice president acknowledged the legislators in the room today who helped get the bill through Congress, and reflected on it being his last time presiding over the Senate, calling it “maybe one of the most important moments in my career.”
Biden held it up as an exemplar of bipartisanship, a sign that things can still get done in Washington—a notion that would be repeated several times: “This bill would have never occurred, not for some of the—without the leading voices, Republican voices, in the House and the Senate, as well as Democrats,” he said. “It would have never, ever occurred. And I hope this bodes well for what will come next year, that we’re back working together.”
In spite of all the memes painting Biden as a beer-swilling prankster badass uncle, his body language and speaking style still have the reserve of a statesman.
This law, he said, will help millions of people by harnessing “America’s best minds of science, medicine, and technology to tackle some of our biggest and most complex health challenges of today.”
He listed the components, and at the end, his mind, naturally, turned to his son.
“Mr. President, if you’ll excuse as we both have just a done—a point of personal privilege, I want to thank my colleagues,” he said. “Of that $6.3 billion, $1.8 billion will go and be invested in cancer research and care.”
He singled out Sens. Mitch McConnell and Harry Reid, the majority leader and minority leader, respectively, for naming the cancer apportionment after Beau. His lower lip quivered ever so slightly after he said his name. Biden looked down at the podium as the crowd cheered, and then looked up to take another “point of personal privilege.”
“You know he loved you,” Biden told Obama, “and you were wonderful to Beau.”
“And he spent a year in Iraq,” Biden continued, “came back a decorated veteran, and he was attorney general of the state, and he never, ever, ever gave up—nor did we.”
Of course, Beau was given the best medical care, Biden acknowledged, something most families touched by cancer will never have. Obama lost his mother to cancer, he remembered.
The 21st Century Cures Act will allow people to live longer and, Biden reiterated, give them hope.
The vice president closed out his remarks by looking toward the president and telling the story of when he was offered to join Obama’s ticket. His daughter, referencing one of Biden’s favorite quotes, by Irish poet Seamus Heaney, told him at the time this is “hope and history.”
“I’m history, here’s hope,” he said, patting the president’s folded arms. The room laughed, including Obama.
“Ladies and gentlemen, the President of the United States.”
The two men shook hands and exchanged a brief bro hug as the crowd clapped.
Sensing a standing ovation, Obama waved and told the audience members, “Oh, no need.” They did it anyway.
Obama lauded the bill as an extension of his administration’s goal to return science and innovation to prominence.
Praising the vice president’s ability to rally not just Congress, but doctors, researchers, philanthropists, and patients, Obama said Biden is “showing us that with the right investment and the ingenuity of the American people, to quote him, ‘there isn’t anything we can’t do.’”
“So I’d like everybody to just please join me in thanking what I consider to be the finest vice president in history, Joe Biden,” Obama continued, pointing his thumb behind his back to where the vice president was standing.
As the crowd applauded, he stepped back from the podium to applaud and shake Biden’s right hand, placing his left hand on Biden’s bicep. Biden briefly held up both hands to wave and mouthed, ‘thank you.’ The clapping kept going, and he smiled sheepishly, waving horizontally to ask everyone to stop.
“Go ahead and embarrass Joe,” Obama said. “Go ahead.”
The audience whooped and cheered as Biden smiled and shook his head from side to side.
“Hey! Why not?” Obama said with a smile.
He made sure to paint 21st Century Cures as a natural extension of the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, something Trump, Paul Ryan, and the Republicans have vowed to dismantle.
“I’m hopeful that in the years ahead, Congress keeps working together in a bipartisan fashion to move us forward rather than backward in support of the health of our people,” he said. “Because these are gains that have made a real difference for millions of Americans.”
Obama had started out billing the event as another holiday party, but a party this was not. The president offered a solemnity fit for the occasion, a measure of empathy for people like the Grubbs and the Bidens and what they’ve endured.
It was a good day, but it was also a bittersweet day.
“I think it’s important to acknowledge that it’s not easy for the Grubbs to come up here and talk about Jessie,” he said. “It’s not easy for Joe and Jill, I know, to talk about Beau.
“Joe mentioned my mother, who died of cancer,” he went on. “She was”—he paused for a moment, looking up and blinking his eyes as he did the math—”two and a half years younger than I am today when she passed away.” There was a soft sadness in his words when he said them.
He concluded: “So with that, I think it’s time for me to sign this bill into law.” A dozen pens sat on a table bearing the presidential seal, and Obama used each one as he marked the legislation.
Being your brother’s keeper
Dec. 14, 2016, South Court Auditorium, Eisenhower Executive Office Building
With the days winding down, the Obama administration held its final summit for My Brother’s Keeper, a mentorship initiative started by the president in 2014 to help boys and young men of color. The summit included a number of panels—for young voices, shaping policy, and community infrastructure, and more—in addition to implicit bias training and a fireside chat with former Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter.
Among the guests: NBA legend Bob Lanier, Secretary Tom Perez of the Department of Labor, Secretary John King of the Department of Education, Mayor Martin J. Walsh of Boston, and Mayor Betsy Hodges of Minneapolis. Locally, Jamal Jones of the Baltimore Algebra Project was on hand.
A day before, this room had been used for a signing ceremony that was somewhat “bittersweet,” in Obama’s own words. This proved to be different: An enthusiastic group of African-American community leaders and activists mostly filled the seats.
Malachi Hernandez, a Boston resident and freshman at Northeastern University, gave opening remarks in praise of My Brother’s Keeper, crediting it with helping him work his way from a neighborhood surrounded by poverty and violence to being the first member in his family to attend college.
He closed by introducing “my president, our president, President Barack Obama.”
The crowd rose to its feet, Obama waved, and went over to Hernandez to slap hands and bro hug.
“Hello, everybody!” Obama, dressed in a navy blue suit, white checked shirt, and navy blue tie, enthused. “Hello!”
He thanked Malachi for the introduction and noted, “He’s very telegenic.”
“We might have to run him for something at some point,” he said.
The president then introduced the six other My Brother’s Keeper members on stage, all of whom are attending college.
“These young people behind me are proof that a little love, a little support allows them to achieve anything they can dream, anything they can conceive,” Obama said.
As many in the room know, the odds are stacked against certain communities, he told them—“and that’s especially true for boys and young men of color.”
The president said he sees himself in these young people, gesturing with his right thumb toward the young men behind him.
“I grew up without a father,” he said. “There were times where I made poor choices, times where I was adrift. The only difference between me and a lot of other young men is that I grew up in a more forgiving environment. I had people who encouraged me and gave me a second chance.”
This was a problem of national concern, not just cities and minorities—“because if we’re going to stay ahead as a nation, we’re going to need the talent of every single American,” he said.
Thinking back on the decision to start My Brother’s Keeper three years ago, the president said he wanted to create something long-lasting that reached beyond a federal government initiative.
“So I just wanted to come by and say thank ya,” the president said, adopting a casual, joke-y tone for “thank ya” that made the room to laugh.
“Thank you,” he said more sincerely. “Thank you for stepping up to the challenge. Thank you for being great partners in this work. Thank you for believing in our young people.”
He concluded by saying My Brother’s Keeper was not just about him or his presidency, but a fulfillment of the American Dream that enables citizens to chase their ambitions. Obama told the crowd his involvement wouldn’t end once his term ended.
“This is something I will be invested in for the rest of my life, and I look forward to continuing the journey with you,” he said.
And, he told them, “We are just scratching the surface.”
Meet the Press
Dec. 16, 2016, 2:40 p.m., James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
More than an hour beforehand and the room was already packed with photographers and reporters—all here for what was thought to be President Obama’s last press conference ever.
The long, narrow room sits atop the old White House pool, and with the rows of affixed seats and production booths for the major networks, space was already at a premium. Yet those without assigned seats kept jamming into every nook and cranny.
It was not certain if this would be Obama’s last time taking questions from reporters, but with the First Family slated to take a trip to Hawaii for the holidays, it was definitely his final press conference of 2016.
As the starting time inched closer, and the room became even more crowded and stuffy, some of the regulars grew a little irritated.
“Lady in labor coming through,” said one reporter—a clear falsehood—trying to make her way to her assigned seat.
“Is there not a fire code here?” another wondered aloud.
Some time later, an intercom announcement mercifully offered the sardines in the press corps a two-minute warning for the president. There was much to talk about. Recently released intelligence reports revealed even more about the extent to which Russia interfered in the election between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, the Syrian city of Aleppo continued to be devastated by a raging civil war, and Clinton’s camp had recently insinuated that remarks by FBI director James Comey prior to Election Day changed the outcome of the race.
Obama, sporting his standard blue power suit and a light blue shirt and navy blue striped tie, entered stage right through a blue door.
“This is the most wonderful press conference of the year,” he joked. “I’ve got a list of who’s been naughty and nice to call on.”
First, he wanted to deliver prepared remarks: “Typically, I use this year-end press conference to review how far we’ve come over the course of the year. Today, understandably, I’m going to talk a little bit about how far we’ve come over the past eight years.”
He touted some familiar talking points, reading them off in an uneventful manner.
-When he took office, unemployment was “on its way to 10 percent.” Now it’s 4.6 percent.
-Forty-four million people were uninsured before Obamacare. Twenty million got insurance as a result. More and more are signing up before Obama leaves office.
-Dependence on foreign oil has been cut in half and investments in renewable energy have increased.
-The administration “enacted the most sweeping reforms since FDR to protect consumers and prevent a crisis on Wall Street from punishing Main Street ever again.”
-Businesses have added 15 million jobs since Obamacare was signed into law.
-The U.S. went from having 180,000 troops fighting two wars to 15,000 deployed. And Osama bin Laden was killed.
-Diplomatic efforts will prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon.
-Relations with Cuba were re-opened.
-The U.S. was one of almost 200 countries to join the Paris climate agreement “that could very well save this planet for our kids.”
“In other words, by so many measures, our country is stronger and more prosperous than it was when we started,” he concluded with a lilt in his voice. “That’s a situation that I’m proud to leave for my successor.”
Attributing this success to the people, their sacrifices, hard work, and sense of community, he said, “And I could not be prouder to be your President.”
There’s still work to be done, of course.
“In this season in particular, we’re reminded that there are people who are still hungry, people who are still homeless; people who still have trouble paying the bills or finding work after being laid off,” he said.
There are still communities torn apart by gun violence.
“And after I leave office,” he said, “I intend to continue to work with organizations and citizens doing good across the country on these and other pressing issues to build on the progress that we’ve made.”
Turning his eye to the world outside America, Obama referenced hotspots of continued conflict, including “the savage assault by the Syrian regime and its Russian and Iranian allies on the city of Aleppo.”
“We have seen a deliberate strategy of surrounding, besieging, and starving innocent civilians,” he went on to say. “We’ve seen relentless targeting of humanitarian workers and medical personnel; entire neighborhoods reduced to rubble and dust. There are continuing reports of civilians being executed.”
After laying the blame for these atrocities on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and allies from Russia and Iran, Obama said the best solution would be a ceasefire that allows for a politically negotiated end to the war.
“That’s what the United States is going to continue to push for, both with our partners and through multilateral institutions like the U.N.,” he said.
He criticized the Russians for blocking attempts to bring the issue before the U.N. Security Council but pledged to continue delivering humanitarian aid and working toward a solution.
“So even in a season where the incredible blessings that we know as Americans are all around us, even as we enjoy family and friends and are reminded of how lucky we are, we should also be reminded that to be an American involves bearing burdens and meeting obligations to others,” he said. “American values and American ideals are what will lead the way to a safer and more prosperous 2017, both here and abroad.”
The president then turned it over to questions (who gets to ask a question is determined ahead of time). Many focused on the hacking scandal, Trump, and Syria, but there were also questions about the future of the DNC. For the sake of brevity, we’ll quote some of the more revealing responses. Because Obama’s answers at these things are long and thoroughly, carefully considered. It’s a far cry from his spirited campaign speeches imploring crowds “yes we can,” and his mild-mannered loquaciousness has earned him the label of “professorial.” He has a habit of twisting his torso a bit and leaning into the podium with one of his arms as he continues on with his response.
Obama offered a stout defense of the way the intelligence community handled its report on the theft of DNC emails and his administration’s concerted effort not to politicize the investigation.
“I wanted to make sure that everybody understood we were playing this thing straight—that we weren’t trying to advantage one side or another,” he said, “but what we were trying to do was let people know that this had taken place, and so if you started seeing effects on the election, if you were trying to measure why this was happening and how you should consume the information that was being leaked, that you might want to take this into account.”
He went on the offensive a bit with the media, slapping them on the wrist: “I’m finding it a little curious that everybody is suddenly acting surprised that this looked like it was disadvantaging Hillary Clinton because you guys wrote about it every day. Every single leak. About every little juicy tidbit of political gossip—including John Podesta’s risotto recipe. This was an obsession that dominated the news coverage.”
To make sure there weren’t further intrusions, he said he approached Putin at a September summit in China and told him “to cut it out, and there were going to be some serious consequences if he didn’t.” There was no tampering after that.
Looking back, he wouldn’t have done it any differently. “We allowed law enforcement and the intelligence community to do its job without political influence.”
The professor in Obama was willing to extrapolate this out further, offering a warning about what the hacking could portend for America: “We are a digitalized culture, and there is hacking going on every single day. There’s not a company, there’s not a major organization, there’s not a financial institution, there’s not a branch of our government where somebody is not going to be phishing for something or trying to penetrate, or put in a virus or malware.”
He wouldn’t go so far as to say the hacking cost Clinton the election, instead prescribing a critique that echoed a lot of the post-mortems following Trump’s surprise win: The Democrats weren’t connecting with middle America. The Democratic Party needs to have a presence, no matter how red the district, he said. “Because I think we have the better argument. But that requires a lot of work.”
In a moment of self-reflection, he admitted he could never really transfer that kind of organization to down-ticket candidates during midterm elections.
“That’s something that I would have liked to have done more of, but it’s kind of hard to do when you’re also dealing with a whole bunch of issues here in the White House,” he said.
A question about whether Obama felt “any personal moral responsibility” for what is happening in Syria brought out the most emotion in the president, a mix of urgency and sorrow.
“Mike, I always feel responsible,” he said, leaning into the podium. “I felt responsible when kids were being shot by snipers. I felt responsible when millions of people had been displaced.”
He paused for a moment, looking down at the podium, reflecting.
“I feel responsible for murder and slaughter that’s taken place in South Sudan that’s not being reported on, partly because there’s not as much social media being generated from there.”
He paused again, pushing his lower lip in a frown.
“There are places around the world where horrible things are happening, and because of my office, because I’m President of the United States, I feel responsible,” he said. “I ask myself every single day”—he pinched the tips of his right index finger and thumb together and motioned with his hand to emphasize each word—“is there something I could do that would save lives and make a difference.
“And spare some child who doesn’t deserve to suffer.”
“So that’s a starting point,” he added. “There’s not a moment during the course of this presidency where I haven’t felt some responsibility. That’s true, by the way, for our own country.”
He thought back to when he first took office and people were losing their jobs, pensions, or homes.
“I would go home at night and I would ask myself, was there something better that I could do or smarter that I could be that would make a difference in their lives, that would relieve their suffering and relieve their hardship.”
While starting a defense of his actions in Syria, an older woman near the back of the room fainted. The president tried to go on with his answer, his eyes darting back to the commotion in the corner. Reporters were trying to get her seated and then take her out for fresh air.
“I’m sorry what’s going on?”
Multiple people told him the woman had passed out.
“Somebody’s not feeling good?” he asked. The president directed someone to go get his doctor.
He tried starting again, but then a woman told him, “We need to get a doctor in here, I think.”
Obama turned toward his staff and said, “Can somebody help out please and get Doc Jackson in here? Is somebody grabbing our doctor?”
There was some confusion about whether to take the woman outside, through the side doors, or back through the jammed-pack crowd. One of the reporters helping the woman thanked the president for stopping.
“Of course,” he said. “In the meantime, just give her a little room. The doctor will be here in a second.”
There was a long pause. He asked to make sure the reporters helping the woman knew where the doctor’s office was, directing them through the Palm Doors and right next to the Map Room, in the ground floor of the executive mansion. Then Jackson appeared.
“The doctor is in the house,” he said.
Obama went right back to answering the question about Syria: “I understand the impulse to want to do something. But ultimately, what I’ve had to do is to think about what can we sustain, what is realistic,” he said. “And my first priority has to be what’s the right thing to do for America.”
Another question about Russia and the legitimacy of the elections caused the president to get a little testy.
“The Russians can’t change us,” he insisted, “or significantly weaken us.” Then he pointedly laid the smack down: “They are a smaller country. They are a weaker country. Their economy doesn’t produce anything that anybody wants to buy, except oil and gas and arms. They don’t innovate.”
Obama marveled at the idea Republicans and Republican voters would start warming up to “individuals who stand contrary to everything that we stand for” simply because they hate the Democrats so much.
He nodded his head incredulously and darted his eyes, a look that said “Come on!”
There’s a great deal of hypocrisy at work here too, he explained. People who have previously been critical of Obama for engaging Putin have endorsed Trump. Right-wingers who’ve made their names being anti-Russian have sat on their hands.
He cited a poll that said 37 percent of Republican voters approve of Putin.
“Over a third of Republican voters,” he said in disbelief, “approve of Vladimir Putin, the former head of the KGB. Ronald Reagan would roll over in his grave.”
It’s symptomatic of political calculations designed strictly to thwart him and his party, Obama concluded.
“And unless that changes, we’re going to continue to be vulnerable to foreign influence, because we’ve lost track of what it is that we’re about and what we stand for,” he reiterated.
Every question related to the election danced around his feelings about Trump’s victory. The answer is obvious: What Trump plans to do will be very different than what he did, “and I think people will be able to compare and contrast and make judgments about what worked for the American people.”
Even so, he hopes “that, building off the progress we’ve made, that what the President-elect is proposing works. What I can say with confidence is that what we’ve done works.”
Almost an hour and a half later, the press conference was done.
“Thank you, everybody,” he said, holding his hand up to wave. “Mele Kalikimaka.”
As Obama made his way for the door, a reporter asked, “Is this your last news conference, sir?”
“Oh, I don’t know,” he said cheerfully. “I’ll have to reflect on that.”
Off to Hawaii
Dec. 16, 2016, 5:30 p.m., The South Lawn
A small scrum of media, staff, and friends of staff gathered in a roped off area by the South Portico on this brisk night. Marine One, the president’s helicopter, sat on the lawn, waiting to take them to Andrews Air Force Base. From there, they’d fly on Air Force One to Hawaii to spend the holidays.
About 5:38 p.m., the president walked out of the White House, his arm around youngest daughter Sasha, as the crowd cheered and snapped photos. Michelle and Malia were not far behind. Ever the gentleman, Obama waited for all three women to board before ascending the stairs. They were joined by a handful of aides and staffers.
Once the hatch was sealed, the propeller blades started whipping around furiously, sending an icy breeze into the already frigid air. About 5:42 p.m., the helicopter lifted off the ground, turned toward the Washington Monument, and ascended higher and higher. It turned southwest before disappearing over a line of trees.
According to pool reports, the First Family spent their time at the beach and dining out, and the president got in his fair share of golf. On Christmas Eve, the president made calls to service members overseas, one in each branch of the military. And for Christmas itself, he and the First Lady spent time with soldiers stationed in Hawaii.
Two days later, the president met Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at Pearl Harbor, where they both laid wreaths and made remarks calling for peace instead of war.
One last message for young people
Jan. 6, 2017, The East Room
The crowd of stars and educators was here to celebrate the National School Counselor of the Year, an award the First Lady started giving out as part of her Reach Higher education initiative to get more high school students in college.
Winners—almost exclusively women—from every state stood on risers set up on a stage in the south side of the room. Comedian Jay Pharoah, musicians Kelly Rowland, Usher, and Wale, and actors Allison Williams, Kal Penn, and Connie Britton, and University of Michigan football coach Jim Harbaugh sat with teachers and school administrators.
This year’s national winner, Terri Tchorzynski, used her introductory remarks to address the elephant in the room: what lies ahead.
“As the change in administration occurs, raising questions about the directions education will take, I can promise you all school counselors will continue the legacy you have established,” she said to applause. “We will work to help all students reach higher and achieve their full potential.”
She asked all the educators in the room to think about all the lives they’ve affected, and quoted a speech given by Obama about the ripple effect educators have—on the kids they teach and the families those kids will one day raise.
“We need to think how our work will continue in our students’ hearts and minds, as well as the hearts and minds of everyone they touch,” she said. “Think about that for a moment: That is the power that resides in believing in our young people, and doing whatever we can to help them reach their goals and dreams.”
She challenged counselors across the country to “create systemic change and support the dream’s of our country’s youth.”
“And now,” she said, “there’s no greater honor I can imagine than to introduce to you someone who understands the value of great education: Our school counselor in chief, the First Lady of the United States, Mrs. Michelle Obama.”
The room stood and clapped as Obama walked out in a long-sleeved red dress and hugged Tchorzynski. The ovation lasted so long that she had to order the crowd down with her hand.
“You guys, that’s a command—rest yourselves. We’re almost at the end,” she said, clapping and leaning forward.
“Hello, everyone,” she went on. “And, may I say for the last time officially, welcome to the White House.”
After thanking all the counselors, celebrities, and Reach Higher’s leadership team, Obama highlighted the investments in education that have been made over the last eight years.
The money given toward Pell grants and taxes credits has doubled in an attempt to make college more affordable. The administration has provided more funding for counselors, she said—a remark that, naturally, got some hurrahs.
“Altogether, we made in this administration the largest investment in higher education since the G.I. Bill,” she said. “And today, the high school graduation rate is at a record high, and more young people than ever before are going to college.”
The mood in the room had gone from jovial celebration to sincere appreciation, and it was about to become sobering—and even a little fearful—as the First Lady used her last public remarks to address young people.
“[K]now that this country belongs to you—to all of you, from every background and walk of life,” she said, her voice beginning to tremble a little.
“If you or your parents are immigrants,” she continued, “know that you are part of a proud American tradition—the infusion of new cultures, talents and ideas, generation after generation, that has made us the greatest country on earth.”
She remained poised when talking to people without money, reminding them she and the president didn’t come from great wealth.
“But with a lot of hard work and a good education, anything is possible—even becoming President,” she affirmed. “That’s what the American Dream is all about.”
There was a long applause.
Like she did before sorting toys, the First Lady touched on religious diversity, saying that all faiths teach young people about “justice, and compassion, and honesty.”
“So I want our young people to continue to learn and practice those values with pride.
“You see, our glorious diversity—our diversities of faiths and colors and creeds—that is not a threat to who we are,” she asserted, pointing down at the podium for emphasis, “it makes us who we are.”
It wasn’t hard to parse who or what she was talking about.
“Do not ever let anyone make you feel like you don’t matter, or like you don’t have a place in our American story—because you do,” she continued. “And you have a right to be exactly who you are.”
These rights are not to be taken for granted, she said; they must be fought for every day. It’s the job of a citizen to preserve and protect those freedoms. “And that starts right now, when you’re young,” she said, when you should be preparing to add your voice to the national conversation.
In the face of the obstacles that are sure to come, the First Lady implored young people to believe in something she and the president have been touting since they first entered politics: “the power of hope—the belief that something better is always possible if you’re willing to work for it and fight for it.”
It’s what’s lifted them above the voices of doubt and division, anger and fear. It’s hope that inspires people to power through and achieve.
She wore her heart on her sleeve with the mention of her dad, “who got up every day to do his job at the city water plant; the hope that one day, his kids would go to college and have opportunities he never dreamed of.”
“That’s the kind of hope that every single one of us—politicians, parents, preachers—all of us need to be providing for our young people,” she said, as the eyes of the women behind her started to well with tears. “Because that is what moves this country forward every single day—our hope for the future and the hard work that hope inspires.”
The audience rose to their feet for a standing ovation, but the First Lady wanted to make her point clear.
“I want our young people to know that they matter, that they belong,” she said. “So don’t be afraid—you hear me, young people? Don’t be afraid. Be focused. Be determined. Be hopeful. Be empowered.”
A good education would allow them to grow and lead the country, and her advice on how to do that was another not-so-veiled rebuke of the incoming president: “Lead by example with hope, never fear.”
The First Lady pledged her support and encouragement well after she leaves office, and knew the same would be true for counselors, teachers, administrators, and activists everywhere.
“And I am so grateful to all of you for your passion and your dedication and all the hard work on behalf of our next generation,” she told the educators. “And I can think of no better way to end my time as First Lady than celebrating with all of you.”
The First Lady’s eyes started to fill with tears.
“So I want to close today by simply saying thank you,” she said, clapping her hands in front of her mouth, her voice overcome with emotion. “Thank you for everything you do for our kids and for our country. Being your First Lady has been the greatest honor of my life, and I hope I’ve made you proud.”
Farewell from Citizen Obama
Jan. 10, 2017, McCormick Place, Chicago, IL
The scene at the McCormick Place convention center was like a rock concert. Crowds descended on this gargantuan place by the Lake Michigan shore, many of them outwardly giddy about their luck in getting a ticket. A space with restaurants and bars in an adjacent Hyatt hotel was packed beforehand. A makeshift souvenir shop with unlicensed merchandise popped up near the entrance to the center. And it wasn’t hard to spot hundreds of people wearing shirts from the last tour—or, in this case, political campaign.
An estimated 18,000 people came here for the farewell speech of President Barack Obama, the man who began his public life here as a civil rights lawyer and community organizer and rose to the Illinois State Senate and U.S. Senate before winning the White House for two terms.
They came here because they loved him. Fears or doubts about the incoming administration were checked at the door.
But first, an actual concert or sorts: Illinois native Eddie Vedder, joined by members of the Chicago Children’s Choir, warmed up the show with a performance that included his song ’Rise,’ Labi Siffre’s ’(Something Inside) So Strong,’ and a version of Neil Young’s ’Rockin’ In the Free World’ that started as an acoustic dirge and ascended to a soulful howl.
There was an act of foreshadowing too: a performance of Patti Smith’s ’People Have the Power.’
Obama, after offering his thank yous to applause and Beatlemania-esque shrieks, said it was his conversations with the people, even the ones who didn’t agree with him, that kept him going.
“And every day, I have learned from you,” he said. “You made me a better President, and you made me a better man.”
Earlier reports indicated that this would not be a victory-lap, but there was plenty of that: He checked off accomplishments such as the Affordable Care Act, taking out Osama bin Laden, and job growth. Mostly, though, he looked forward, drawing a direct line between the change that got him into office and the work that would need to be done to keep pushing ahead. The rabid partisanship in our government and national dialogue, and the problems we still face, demand that we must, he argued.
“We can argue about how to best achieve these goals. But we can’t be complacent about the goals themselves,” he said. “For if we don’t create opportunity for all people, the disaffection and division that has stalled our progress will only sharpen in years to come.”
“But laws alone won’t be enough,” he later said. “Hearts must change.”
This means minorities must tie their struggles not only with refugees, immigrants, and transgender people, but also the “middle-aged white guy who, from the outside, may seem like he’s got advantages, but has seen his world upended by economic and cultural and technological change.” By the same token, white people have to acknowledge “the effects of slavery and Jim Crow didn’t suddenly vanish in the ‘60s, that when minority groups voice discontent, they’re not just engaging in reverse racism or practicing political correctness.” And that their ancestors, when they came here as immigrants, often had the same slurs thrown at them that many are using for the new people coming into the country today: “Because for all our outward differences, we, in fact, all share the same proud title, the most important office in a democracy: citizen.”
He said it again, with a little more emphasis: “Citizen.”
Then he got into a bit of a groove, talking with some of the passion and fire that helped launch him to prominence after his speech at the DNC in 2004: “If you’re tired of arguing with strangers on the Internet, try talking with one of them in real life. If something needs fixing, then lace up your shoes and do some organizing. If you’re disappointed by your elected officials, grab a clipboard, get some signatures, and run for office yourself. Show up. Dive in. Stay at it.”
The president then changed the subject.
“Michelle,” he said before being interrupted by shrieks and a long applause. The president started to wear his emotions on his face.
“Michelle LaVaughn Robinson, girl of the South Side, for the past 25 years, you have not only been my wife and mother of my children, you have been my best friend.”
He looked down at the podium, his eyes starting to well a little.
“You took on a role you didn’t ask for and you made it your own, with grace and with grit and with style and good humor.”
The president took a half step back from the podium and scrunched his mouth as the emotions got to him more. He took out a kerchief and wiped away a tear from his right eye.
He then gulped and nodded his head, regaining composure.
“You made the White House a place that belongs to everybody,” he said. “And a new generation sets its sights higher because it has you as a role model.”
“So you have made me proud. And you have made the country proud.”
He then turned to his daughters, Malia and Sasha, though Sasha was absent, the White House press corps later learned, because she was back in Washington studying for an exam. They’ve become “two amazing young women,” he said, handling the pressure of living under the White House spotlight so easily. “Of all that I’ve done in my life, I am most proud to be your dad,” he said.
Next came Vice President Joe Biden, with Obama calling his choice to pick the senator from Delaware his best. “Not just because you have been a great Vice President, but because in the bargain, I gained a brother. And we love you and Jill like family, and your friendship has been one of the great joys of our lives.”
He then thanked his staff for their eight years of work and dedication, and reached back to all the volunteers and organizers who helped grow his unlikely presidential bid in 2008.
And he offered great faith in that next generation, endorsing its “unselfish, altruistic, creative, patriotic” attitude.
“You know that constant change has been America’s hallmark; that it’s not something to fear but something to embrace. You are willing to carry this hard work of democracy forward. You’ll soon outnumber all of us, and I believe as a result the future is in good hands.”
Trump may be in office soon, but the long game still skews toward Obama.
To close, Obama called being president the “honor of his life” and promised to stay involved after leaving office. And he asked the people for one final thing: “I'm asking you to believe. Not in my ability to bring about change—but in yours.”
“I am asking you to hold fast to that faith written into our founding documents; that idea whispered by slaves and abolitionists; that spirit sung by immigrants and homesteaders and those who marched for justice; that creed reaffirmed by those who planted flags from foreign battlefields to the surface of the moon; a creed at the core of every American whose story is not yet written: Yes, we can.”
His voice rose.
“Yes, we did. Yes, we can.”
One more for Joe
Jan. 12, 2017, State Dining Room
The president scheduled a surprise ceremony to honor Vice President Biden.
“I just wanted to get some folks together to pay tribute to somebody who has not only been by my side for the duration of this amazing journey, but somebody who has devoted his entire professional life to service to this country, the best Vice President America has ever had, Mr. Joe Biden.”
He ran through all the accomplishments as a senator, a veep, and a valuable friend and counsel, according to White House transcripts.
And when he finished, Obama presented Biden with something that had only previously been given to Pope John Paul II, President Ronald Reagan, and General Colin Powell: the Presidential Medal of Freedom with Distinction.
Already overwhelmed, Biden was so overcome with emotion that he turned his back to the camera as he wiped tears away from his eyes. He turned back around, shaking his head and deeply exhaling.
“Every single thing you’ve asked me to do, Mr. President, you have trusted me to do,” Biden said. “And that is—that’s a remarkable thing… I don’t think according to the presidential, vice presidential scholars that kind of relationship has existed.”
He closed by saying, “Mr. President, you know as long as there’s a breath in me, I’ll be there for you, my whole family will be, and I know, I know it is reciprocal.”
Celebrating the toast of Chicago and MLK
Jan. 16, 2017, East Room
In his last public event as president, Barack Obama hosted the world champion Chicago Cubs at the White House. It was a break from tradition—typically the reigning World Series winner visits sometime during the season, but that won’t begin until April. Though this event was open press, demand was so high that your reporter could not gain access. Video and transcripts show spirits were high.
For you non-baseball fans out there, the Cubs had not won the Series since 1908 before their magical run last year. To his credit, Obama maintained his loyalties to the White Sox of the South Side, even Hall of Fame Cubs pitcher Ferguson “Fergie” Jenkins presented him with a commemorative jersey.
“So even though it will be hard for me, Fergie, to wear a jersey, do know that among Sox fans, I’m the Cubs number-one fan,” he said.
As this was Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Barack and Michelle headed over to the Jobs Have Priority Naylor Road Family Shelter in Washington to help paint a mural of the civil rights icon.
They also donated a swing set that Malia and Sasha used to play on. They talked with kids who were getting new enjoyment out of the eight-year-old playground, and the president was seen pushing kids on the swings.
A historic commutation
Jan. 17, 2017
President Obama released a list of 209 people whose prison sentences he had commuted and 64 individuals whom he pardoned.
Among the names of commutations was Chelsea Manning, the transgender Army intelligence analyst behind the 2010 leak of 400,000 documents to Julian Assange and WikiLeaks. Videos released by Manning showed a series of airstrikes in July 2007 that killed at least a dozen, including two Reuters employees whose camera was mistaken for a weapon. Another video showed a 2010 airstrike in Afghanistan that killed dozens of civilians. Manning had been sentenced to 35 years in prison in 2013, but Obama’s commutation moved her release date up to May 17, 2017.
Two days later, the White House announced another 330 commutations. During his eight years in office, Obama granted clemency to 1,927 individuals, the most since Harry S. Truman, according to the Pew Research Center.
Departing with hope for the future
Jan. 18, 2017, James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
Reporters have jammed themselves into every inch of the briefing room once again, but this time they know for sure: This is Barack Obama’s final time taking questions from the media as president.
Just before 2:25 p.m., the president walked out to the rapid-fire clicking of camera shutters. Obama joked that he thought about wearing a tan suit—a reference to when he rocked a beige suit in 2014 and Twitter lost its mind. “But Michelle, whose fashion sense is a little better than mine, tells me that’s not appropriate in January,” he said.
Instead, he wore his standard blue suit, a light blue shirt, and a patterned navy blue tie.
His remarks at the top were brief. He’s been in touch with the Bush family and expressed well wishes to former president George H.W. Bush and Barbara Bush, who had both been hospitalized. Then he thanked a group he’s had a somewhat adversarial relationship with in the past—the press. It started out lighthearted, with the president quipping, “And even when you complained about my long answers, I just want you to know that the only reason they were long was because you asked six-part questions.”
But he also offered an appreciation for the job, and a particularly poignant reminder of the function of the press in a democracy as the country sets sail for the Trump era: “You’re not supposed to be sycophants, you’re supposed to be skeptics. You’re supposed to ask me tough questions. You’re not supposed to be complimentary, but you’re supposed to cast a critical eye on folks who hold enormous power and make sure that we are accountable to the people who sent us here.”
“And you have done that,” he said, adding that he didn’t always agree with their conclusions but he appreciated being held accountable.
Now, the media will be the ones who can take on the raft of fake news.
“So America needs you, and our democracy needs you,” he said. “We need you to establish a baseline of facts and evidence that we can use as a starting point for the kind of reasoned and informed debates that ultimately lead to progress.”
The president then took questions, ranging from topics such as his decision to commute the sentence of Chelsea Manning, to Trump’s apparent plans to lift sanctions on Russia, to his thoughts on what will happen to immigrants he helped protect from deportation (known as the DREAMers), to the future of America’s role in Israel.
Referring back to passages from his farewell address, he did have concerns about inequality and making sure nobody is left behind in the economy and added concerns about the “machinery of democracy” and efforts to restrict voting: “The reason that we are the only country among advanced democracies that makes it harder to vote is it traces directly back to Jim Crow and the legacy of slavery,” he said, stating it as the true fact it is but also giving it an authoritative tone to counter anyone who might question it. “And it became sort of acceptable to restrict the franchise. And that’s not who we are. That shouldn’t be who we are. That’s not when America works best.”
Even so, Obama still feels racial relations are improving, and he sees the arc of history, as he has often puts it, bending toward equality. Why? In a word, millennials.
“I think kids are smarter about it,” he said. “They’re more tolerant. They are more inclusive by instinct than we are. And hopefully my presidency maybe helped that along a little bit.”
The last question went to Christi Parsons of the L.A. Times, who’s covered Obama since he was getting his political start in Illionis.
She struck a personal tone, asking how the president and First Lady talked about the election with Malia and Sasha and how they interpreted.
In his response, he found more opportunity to praise the generation coming up.
His daughters didn’t see the election results and get cynical or see it as a total rejection of their values.
“[I]f you’re engaged and you’re involved,” he said, “then there are a lot more good people than bad in this country, and there’s a core decency to this country, and that they got to be a part of lifting that up.”
“And I expect they will be,” he added. “And in that sense, they are representative of this generation that makes me really optimistic.”
As a final thought, he offered some insight into his own view on it.
“I’ve had some off-the-record conversations with some journalists where they said, Okay, you seem like you’re okay, but really, really, what are you thinking?” he said to laughs.
“And I’ve said, No, what I’m saying really is what I think. I believe in this country. I believe in the American people. I believe that people are more good than bad.
“I believe tragic things happen, I think there’s evil in the world, but I think that at the end of the day, if we work hard, and if we’re true to those things in us that feel true and feel right, that the world gets a little better each time.”
The way he said it was fairly fluid, giving little doubt as to its authenticity.
“That’s what this presidency has tried to be about,” he said.
Sure, there are times when he’s cursed or gotten mad behind closed doors, he admitted.
“But at my core,” he said, nodding his head confidently, “I think we’re going to be okay. We just have to fight for it. We have to work for it, and not take it for granted. And I know that you will help us do that.”
“Thank you very much, press corps,” he said. “Good luck.”
He raised his left hand to wave goodbye, brought it back down to pat the podium twice, and walked out the door.